Cross Country Season Preview With Oklahoma State Cowboy Coach Dave Smith
By Emory Mort, LetsRun.com
Released September 15, 2009
Conducted September 11, 2009
LRC Oklahoma State Ranking
Cross country season is often the most exciting season of the year for distance running fans. To help you enjoy the season, we wanted to lay out the story lines for our readers by previewing some of the teams we think will be in the mix for the NCAA Division I title on November 23rd in Terre Haute, IN. We called up Dave Smith, head cross country coach at Oklahoma State, to ask him some questions about his team. He gave us a very interesting interview that further solidified our belief that Oklahoma State is the team to beat in 2009.
LRC: Tell us about your team this year, tell us about what you've seen, who's in shape, your leadership.
OK St. Coach Dave Smith: I've been really impressed with how fit the whole group is. We've got a group of 18 or 19 guys who I think are legitimate Division I type guys on most programs for cross country. A lot of it was guys we knew would be fit and ready to go when they got here and there are some new guys that really surprised me. Some of the younger guys look really fantastic. And then there are guys who have stayed back in the shadows a little bit and they had great summers. I think one of the surprises this year coming out of the summer is John Stublaski, this is his third year here. We ran kind of a B team in Tulsa and he was our number one guy there. So then of course all of the usual suspects, the guys we knew we would have to count on look great.
Would you say your team is hungry? Is this a hungry team that really wants to win it all?
Yea. I think that's been the case every year but last year was tough. We had some bad luck with German Fernandez getting hurt and those types of things*.
*Note: In 2008 Oklahoma State entered the NCAA championship meet with very high expectations but German Fernandez injured his achilles during the race and could not finish. Ok St. finished 8th which was almost unthinkably low going into the race.
You guys have Ryan Vail* back this year?
Yea. He's back just for cross country.
*Note: Ryan Vail was 21st in Terre Haute in 2008 and 33rd at the IAAF World XC Championships in 2009 representing the US and the first American finisher.
That's a big bonus.
Yea. It's huge. We kind of knew it was a possibility last year and he wasn't sure whether he wanted to do it. It depended on whether he was finished with his master's.
German Fernandez is a runner that fascinates many of our readers and many running fans. Can you reflect on his freshman year just a little and tell us what changes you've seen in him this year?
I think he had an unbelievable freshman year. If you look at the accomplishments, there were only two or three races where he got beat last year. The only races where I let him go out and really run and he didn't win were the NCAA cross country championships and that Stanford 5k. Other than that he was unbeatable on the track*. He only lost one race and that was the US championships. There aren't enough superlatives to describe him. Phenomenally talented, he is extremely disciplined, works very hard, very competitive, wants to win, wants to do things the right way, a coach's dream, really.
As far as changes from last year he looks more physically mature this year than last year. I mean, the kid's still only 18 years old, so he's still young and still maturing physically. I think he's still growing and getting a little taller and developing muscularly. I don't know, to be honest he hasn't done much running yet. He got done with USA's and took a little downtime and really now he's back running but really mostly jogging around. I think he could start running about the first of November and still do pretty well.
*Note: Fernandez was not only unbeatable on the track but ran phenomenal times. His 3:55.01 indoor mile at Big XII is a world junior mile record. He won that race by about 9 seconds over 2nd place. He also won the NCAA 1500 as a true freshman outdoors and won many of his races by gigantic margins. He is truly a phenom.
I know you said to us before that German is very motivated. When you look at the field this year, Sam Chelanga is obviously the number one guy. When you talk with German does he ever bring up Chelanga or winning the individual title?
Nope. When German talks, German talks about the team. He never, ever talks about, "Oh, I want to win this race or I want to win that." At the Big XII last year when he won it, you know, our group ran together for about 4.5 miles and our guys were 4th-8th and they just took off to try to catch Isaac Songok of A&M and German was able to catch him and outkick him*. But he wasn't going into that race talking about winning it. The only race where we talked about winning it really was the NCAA 1500m and it wasn't like we had a huge team thing there. He really doesn't talk about the individual side of things at all. That's not where his focus is.
*Note: In 2008 Oklahoma State put their top-4 in the top-5 at Big XII's and scored only 26 points as a team, blowing out Colorado (finished 12th in the nation) and Iowa State (also a very good team).
Tell us about your new runners. You have a transfer from Auburn Girma Mecheso and then you have Joe Manilafasha who was a really good high school runner. Tell us about those new exciting runners for you.
Joe is a great kid, an incredible life story. He was a three-time Foot Locker Finalist, as you probably know. His and Girma's (pictured in Auburn uniform, right) life stories are basically mirror images of each other. They both escaped civil war in their home countries. They both made it to refugee camps. They survived living in a refugee camp in a foreign country and then made it to the US at some point later to get to high school. So both of them, they have similar experiences. I think one thing that does - when you live a life and have experiences like they have you mature very quickly. You learn very quickly not to sweat the little things and there's a lot bigger picture out there than what girlfriend might be breaking up with me or what the workout might have been today. They have a real mature perspective and outlook on training and life in general.
So I think both those guys add a lot to our team in terms of emotional stability and being able to not sweat the little things. They're valuable that way but both are also extremely talented runners. Joe struggled with injury most of his senior year after cross country. He didn't run track at all. He came in as someone who I thought three or four years down the road might help us but kind of like Colby Lowe last year - I kind of thought the same thing with Colby last year but he jumped up and proved me wrong - Joe is flirting with the top-5 consistently right now. Not going crazy, he's running with those top 5-7 guys with consistency right now.
With Girma he's on the same level as Vail, German and John Kosgei [8th at NCAA XC Champs last year]. Those guys are all top-10, top-15 type guys at the NCAA championships on the right day. Same with Girma, his life experiences just make him not sweat the everyday things. His life experiences are - thank God - the types of things most of us never have to go through and situations we'll never understand. Great guy.
So Girma's from Ethiopia, where's Manilafasha from?
Manilafasha's from Burundi. They escaped into Tanzania and they spent several years in a Tanzanian refugee camp.
Why did Girma end up transferring?
I don't know, I really don't know. I'm sure his coach leaving had something to do with it, maybe that shook him up a little bit. I'm not sure why he transferred and I'm not sure why he ended up here. Just a month ago he was looking at four or five NCAA D1 schools, just trying to figure out where to go. We had basically given up. We heard he was going somewhere else and all of a sudden we got a call saying he's going to run for us.
Well that's nice you get a NCAA top-20 guy who just shows up. [Mecheso finished 16th in Terre Haute in 2008]
Yea and like I said he's just an extremely mature individual. He's been through a lot. He's very good for the program in that way I think.
So when is your team's first big test?
The Jamboree [Oklahoma State's Invitational on October 3]. NAU is coming, William & Mary. I think Texas is coming up, Illinois is coming down. We're not gonna race much this year but when we do we're going to race pretty hard.
*Note: NAU is a likely top-10 finisher at the NCAA meet this year and W&M is a likely top-20 team.
Are you going to run your full squad there?
Well I'm not sure about Vail, I'm not sure about German. Like I said, German is just getting going. We had a little tempo run the other day and he was leading it so I'm sure he'd be fine. But like I said I'm not sure if he'll race. I tend to be a little more cautious. Tend to do too little than too much. He will race before the conference meet. He'll race either Chile Pepper or Jamboree, and maybe both. With Vail, you know, he's 23 years old, and he and I have learned over the years that he can race well without a whole lot of races. But everyone else will run. I want to give Girma and John Kosgei and all the young guys a chance to run. Maybe we'll have the whole squad but we'll see. We're want to go out there and go for the win.
It must be exciting to go out to practice. You guys seem to have an incredible team.
It's a great group. They're talented and they come from these different backgrounds, and they for the most part are really motivated. I tell the guys all the time I would have loved to train with a group like this. It would have destroyed me but I still would have loved to give it a try.
As a coach I think it's a little tricky in that you don't want to go out there and overdo things. You have to be really careful to not let things get carried away, not let the momentum of the group get going to where you can't slow it down. I think you have to be very careful and very structured.
I noticed a mid-distance addition or two to your team roster.
Yea we haven't done that much with middle distances yet. From the time I got here we were really focused on getting the cross country going. Now we're starting to branch out, we have a new kid here in the middle distances who I think will help us a lot from Romania. And then we've got a couple kids coming in January who should help us a lot in the middle distances. So we want to kind of expand down to the middle distances and improve that group.